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Facing the Facts

Peter Crimmins
Thursday October 10, 2002

A photography exhibit in downtown Berkeley, commissioned by the Alameda County Community Food Bank, will present startling images of the many faces of hunger throughout the month of October. The 40 photograph exhibit titled “Hunger: What Will You Do About It?” by Berkeley-based documentary photographer David Bacon, will be held at the Civic Center at 2180 Milvia St., and in the Police Review Commission lobby at 1900 Addison St.  

The images in the exhibit show the poor clients and hard-working volunteers of the food bank, which distributes millions of pounds of food each year to the East Bay hungry. 

“The whole idea of the show was to document the programs and to show the people who were trying to [make] change,” said Bacon. 

Captions below the photographs add information and statistics. 

“In half of client households with children, either a parent or child, or both, experience hunger,” reads one caption. “Fresh fruit and vegetables are costly and difficult for food bank agencies to provide, yet vital to proper health,” reads another. 

The photographs were commissioned for an emergency food report, called “Hunger, the Faces and Facts.” 

As part of a national study coordinated by America’s Second Harvest, a network of community food banks across the country, the Alameda County Community Food Bank surveyed a random selection of its clients in 2001. Not surprisingly, the results show that with the many economic fluctuations of the last five years, the numbers of clients requiring emergency food has risen. 

A large portion, nearly 43 percent, of food bank recipients are children, the report states. Executive Director Susan Bateman said parents are usually reluctant to admit that their children go to bed hungry, but the study found many parents confessing to a lack of food in their homes. 

Likewise, a sense of shame often prohibits senior citizens from asking for food said Bateman. Often the poor, due to the financial strain of illness and rising Bay Area rents, find it “hard to say they need help,” she said. “Many seniors have worked their whole lives.” 

The Community Food Bank is not a government agency, meaning it does not distribute food stamps or welfare money. It is a charitable non-profit organization distributing food to soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters throughout the East Bay. 

Despite common misconceptions, the Food Bank’s clients are not just the homeless and jobless. The report states that 37 percent of households who receive emergency food have at least one employed adult.  

The report also describes the inequality of wage increases for lower-income workers. According to the report, between 1990 and 1999, wages for college-educated workers increased 5 percent, while those without a degree had an average wage decrease of the same amount.  

“One of the things that bothers me is depicting these people as victims,” said photographer Bacon. 

The pictures show smiling kids sitting at soup kitchen tables, families reclining on couches in their homes, and volunteers unloading cans of pinto beans and bagging crackers for distribution. 

Mounted next to some photos are printed stories behind selected people, like Katherine McGrue, a single mother of two, part-time worker and full-time student, who was denied food stamps, and client Vivien Hain, who traveled to Sacramento on Hunger Action Day to speak with government representatives. 

The show has a notable lack of images of shockingly thin people in ramshackle squats or the kind of grotesque dead-eyed hollowness in a Sally Struthers’ television ad. 

“I’m trying to get away from what seems manipulative,” said Bacon. “Hunger is not an individual problem. It’s a problem with society.” 

Bacon, who has documented poverty in the Philippines and farmworker’s rights struggles in California, said questions of hunger are as much for the general public’s consciousness as they are of public policy. 

“Even the people at the food bank will tell you they will not be able to end hunger by organizing food banks,” said Bacon. 

To meet America’s Second Harvest’s goal of ending hunger in American, the Alameda County Food Bank’s report makes recommendations to support sustainable wages, increase affordable housing and offer basic health care to low-income families. 

Both Bacon and Bateman said they hope the show’s placement in the 1900 Addison St. and 2180 Milvia St. buildings, where it will be seen mostly by city officials roaming the hallways, will have an affect on public policy.  

To see the photos in the Civic Center, you must sign in at the lobby, take the elevator to the third floor, then ask the receptionist to escort you to the door of the Rosebud conference room. 

The photography exhibit will remain in the Police Review Commission office and the Rosebud conference room until Oct. 30. It then is scheduled to be displayed in Emeryville at the new Bay Street urban village for the holiday season.